Tips for Working With Emotional Intensity

It’s my turn to contribute to SENG’s Blog Tour celebrating their National Parenting Gifted Children week (see the whole schedule here). Gifted kids are a unique and challenging group – for teachers and for parents. They view the world through an entirely unique lens, one that is best summed in one word. Intense.

This intensity refers to how gifted individuals approach life. At its best, intensity is the driving passion that enables some people to achieve amazing things – in any domain. But at its worst, it is the turmoil that has the power to consume these same individuals from time to time as they learn how to manage that aspect of their personality.

Intensity comes in the form of cognitive intensity – those aspects of thinking and processing information that all gifted individuals use to problem solve. It relates to the attributes of focus, sustained attention, creative problem solving, and advanced reasoning skills. Most people think of cognitive intensity as intellect, or “being smart” – all good things.

But a gifted child’s intensity does not stop there. The emotional aspects of a gifted individual are also intense. Emotional intensity refers to the passion gifted people feel daily. It also refers to the extreme highs and lows many gifted people experience throughout their lifetime, causing them to question their own mental stability from time to time. This type of intensity is a natural aspect of giftedness. However, in my experience, it is also one of the most misunderstood attributes – and it is the reason gifted kids sometimes struggle.

Typically, emotional intensity results in a range of behavioral outbursts that can be internal (including moodiness, anxiety, and depression) or external (yelling or crying, temper tantrums, and physical expressions of anger or frustration). Regardless of how a gifted child chooses to demonstrate his or her intensities, there are a lot of things parents and educators can do to help lessen the outburst and help teach coping strategies.

  1. Start early by helping the child talk about his or her emotions – Trust me, they may not want to – but taking the emotions from some raw feeling to a tangible thing that can be defined is an important first step in learning to control the behavior. Further, the development of an emotional vocabulary can assist in providing a common language with which to discuss emotions and behavior.
  2. Help the child discover his or her unique escalation cycle –Work to discover both your child’s and your own escalation patterns. Gifted kids have considerable talent for pushing a teacher or parent’s buttons. Knowing the things that push you over the edge will enable you to remain calm during emotional outbursts, whatever form they may take. Further, helping children discover their escalation pattern will give them a chance to learn to manage and redirect the feelings before they become too overwhelming.
  3. Develop a plan to deal with the intensity – Once you and your child has identified the escalation cycle,  work with the child to make a plan for what to do when he or she is overwhelmed – when life becomes too intense. Important aspects of the plan should include relaxation techniques, ways to redirect his or her energies, and things to do INSTEAD of the internal or external explosion.
  4. Create emotional distance from the explosion – Should the explosion happen anyway, it is important to remain calm and create a distance between your emotions and the child’s. Anger and frustration always beget more anger and frustration, so it is really important for the adults working with the child to stay emotionally neutral.
  5. Take a breather – This goes for the child and the adults. The best way to create the distance I talked about above is to remember to take a break and calm down.
  6. Focus on the behavior you WANT to see, not only the inappropriate behavior you are seeing – Remember to focus on the good behavior you want to see. All too often we get into a pattern of responding to the negative behaviors strongly (because these behaviors emotionally hook us) and not responding enough to the positive behaviors. The result – more negative behaviors. So do a mental inventory and make sure to focus your time and energy on the positive behaviors.
  7. View behavioral outbursts, whether internal or external, are teachable moments – Yes, they are frustrating and annoying. Maybe even infuriating. But they are still teachable moments. Take the time to redirect the behavior, focusing on teaching the GT child how to understand and redirect the behavior.

The bottom-line to all of this: Intensity is not a bad thing in and of itself. Intensity is passion – the kind of passion we use to create. But the way in which the GT child copes with his or her intensity can be a problem. Utilizing some of the strategies above can go a long way to helping both kids and adults embrace the intensity and recognize it for what it is – a wonderful aspect of what it means to be gifted in the first place!

 

13 thoughts on “Tips for Working With Emotional Intensity

  1. I really like your thoughts here and I think you’ve offered some very valuable tips. It’s hard, in the moment, to think these things through. I try to practice these for little things as well so that it’s second nature when the big shows come around🙂

  2. I’m so glad that you re-launched this blog early, Christine! Thanks for these valuable suggestions. I especially like the one about focusing on behaviors we want to see, rather on ones we don’t (it works for adults, too).🙂
    ~ Lisa

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  5. Solid, down-to-earth advice is a cornerstone found in all of Christine’s writings. As I’ve said before, if I had known then (when my kids were younger) what I’ve learned from Christine and her books, life would have been a whole lot easier and much less explosive. Fortunately, it is never too late to employ many of the tactics she outlines and I am happy to say that I use them with my young adult children. Thank you, Christine!

  6. joshshaine

    I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, trying to pin down my reactions. I think I’ve got at least a few of them in place, now.

    You seem to be addressing emotional reaction intensity and emotional expression intensity, both of which are very important – and addressing them well.

    But there are two other components of emotional intensity which I feel need attention as well. (If you’ve already written about them elsewhere, I apologize.)

    a) Emotional receptivity intensity: the sensitivity to emotional situations, whether centered on/directed at the child or not. Many gifted children serve as a sort of barometer for the emotional environment of their space, whether home or school or elsewhere. This is especially, but not only, an issue for Asperger/Autism Spectrum children.

    Helping them to understand what is going on, to develop mechanisms to express their own upset over the situation, and potentially ways to either filter or disengage from the source of overwhelming external emotions seems to be vital.

    b) Empathy. This is clearly related to the above, but deals specifically with the awareness of the emotionally intense child of others’ pain and their need to try to alleviate it. This, too, can be overwhelming when the pain of the other(s) is either too much for the child to respond to or the child cannot find a way to alleviate the pain at all, and is left just sharing the suffering without outlet.

    Empathy, as with all potentials, can be nurtured and developed or it can simply be ignored in the hopes that it will go away.

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  8. Angel Casper

    My daughter is 8 and I believe she is dealing with this. During softball she cries when she gets out, she cries if she doesn’t field a ball properly, she cries when someone else messes up. She simply can’t control it…any idea’s about how I can help her?

  9. amor wendelstadt

    My friend, who I met on the internet is gifted. I have been in a relationship with him for over a year. I am unable to deal with his anger an intense reactions and although I love him I don’t thin the relationship will last because I don’t have the knowledge how to deal with this. It is so sad he is an extremely nice decent individual.

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  13. I had no idea this was a normal issue for this subpopulation until I was over 40 and playing around doing Internet research healing from emotional abuse related to fighting about this with a spousal type ten years earlier.

    I think it is helpful. I think it clues me into something but a lot of it may be hormonal.

    Way less about me for a minute here: I read that if a toddler throws a tantrum it is best to realize that the child is attempting to communicate something and with effort, many adults will be able to figure out what the child means – acting accordingly may well eliminate recurring tantrums because the problem is actually solved.

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